Wednesday, January 5
I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged when I was 17, and among the marks it left on me was a romantic vision of secret havens (like Galt’s Gulch, named after Rand’s hero, John Galt) created in the midst of societal chaos and decay. Our taxi ride through Bissau Monday afternoon was brief and yet long enough to make me think this country is worse off than anything in Rand’s worst nightmares. It ranks among the poorest countries on earth, and its capital city is a shattered, dusty place. The last civil war ended about a dozen years ago, but one corrupt president was just assassinated last year. Reportedly Bissau has only a few hours of electricity per day. At night it’s said to be eerily black. In the countryside, land mines remain unexploded. Warns the Rough Guide, “Don’t use footpaths on the mainland unless you see other people doing so or you’re accompanied by a competent guide.”
Why travel here? I’d heard that a Frenchman named Gilles Develay had created the best hotel in the entire country on Bubaque, one of the islands in the Bijagos archipelago, located two hours (by speedboat) southeast of Bissau. The Kasa Afrikana was reported to be pleasant not only when judged by the abysmal standards of Guinea Bissau, but also by those of the New York Times West Africa correspondent who wrote about it in late 2009.
I yearned to see it, and now I can report that it’s every bit as lovely as described. The rooms and grounds are immaculate, and from where I’m sitting I can identify plantings of baobab, various palms, cashew, and exuberantly blooming canna, ginger, marigolds, bougainvillea. The pool isn’t big, but Gilles told us last night he dug the hole for it and built it by hand, covering its interior with little turquoise tiles. The water in it, pumped from a deep well, is pristine. A generator provides abundant electricity for all the compound, but when we asked him last night how he gets the fuel to run it, Gilles shook his head and said it was too complicated to explain. (I understood that the problem wasn’t his English but the enormous complexity of the answer; that it would take a book rather than a blog post to begin to explain how he’s created everything in this place where every tool, every nail, every fixture or piece of furniture must either be built or brought from far, far away.)
Why is Gilles here? We got snatches of an answer to that. Now 55, he and 3 buddies somehow rejected their futures as cogs in the machinery of bourgeoise suburban life in Lyons when they were 17. All four traveled the world (whether together or independently or both, I’m not sure), and when Gilles arrived on this island (“the end of the world”) 16 years ago, he was ready at last to settle down. He bought a piece of property, camped on it, started a ferry service to Bissau, slowly expanded his land holdings. Although the civil war at the end of the 1990s never brought actual fighting to Bubaque, all tourism to the country collapsed. Yet he continued building, solving the hundred and one daily puzzles generated by the challenge of creating an idyll in this unlikely location. He says now his main clients during the rainy season are officials or business people who come here for meetings, while in the dry season, its sport fishermen.
If we’d had one extra day here, I might have wanted to go out in pursuit of some of the magnificent fish inhabiting these waters. Or perhaps we would have tried a day excursion to the nearby island of Orango, where saltwater hippos congregate. But with only two days, we were content to stay on the island — exploring the squalid central village, lounging by Gille’s pool, napping, reading, writing. Today we biked (10 miles each way) to the endless unspoiled beach at the south end of the island. We’ll have one more excellent meal tonight, then we depart on the speedboat early tomorrow, rested up for another chaotic travel day, destination Kolda.